Labor Day weekend in America marked the end of the summer months and, in an off election year, the beginning of the sprint toward the midterm races. This year the midterms will prove critical to the future viability of Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency.
But while everyone is focused on which party will take hold of Congress in November, another race – the 2020 presidential contest – has already quietly begun, and is set to launch publicly on November 7, once the midterms are officially over.
It will be a blockbuster. The Democratic primary field is expected to be historically large and diverse, with potentially over two dozen candidates spanning the faces of the American electorate – African-Americans, Hispanics, South Asians and women. But several are also likely to be Jewish – and together they constitute a serious block of contenders from across the political spectrum of the Democratic Party.
Bernie Sanders, Mike Bloomberg, Eric Garcetti and Howard Schultz are among several Jewish figures considering a run, according to American news reports. The Vermont socialist, New York independent, Los Angeles mayor and Starbucks founder, respectively, all offer Democrats far different visions and would make for a diverse ideological field by themselves.
But the notion of running the first Jewish nominee for president against Donald Trump, of all people, who since launching his own unlikely campaign in 2015 has repeatedly been accused of dog-whistling to white nationalists and neo-Nazis, could end up fueling antisemitism already rising nationwide. The prospect is already alarming some Jewish-world leaders who would otherwise consider the achievement a milestone in American history.
“I am concerned that under Trump, this country has become more divided along racial, ethnic and religious lines, and that’s because of the vitriol that some of his supporters have espoused,” said Halie Soifer, the newly appointed executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA). “I would like to think that the country is ready for a Jewish candidate, but to the extent we aren’t, of course there is concern that there’s a rise in antisemitism. And his past rhetoric raises concern that this may become an issue going forward in 2020.”
During the 2016 race, Trump embraced rhetorical tools that had long been shunned by mainstream politicians as tinged with antisemitism, referring to New York financiers as a cabal of “globalists” and to Jews as exceptional “deal makers,” and adopting an “America First” slogan that was first introduced by American Nazis in the 1930s.
More concerning to Jewish groups was his refusal to condemn or distance himself from avowed white nationalists, supremacists and neo-Nazis who believe his policies on immigration support their view that America is foundationally a white, Christian nation.
The Anti-Defamation League documented a measurable spike in antisemitic acts and attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions that they say tracked with his candidacy and up through the beginning of his presidency, culminating in a fascist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, which Trump refused to categorically condemn at the time.
“You’re changing history, you’re changing culture,” Trump said at a now-infamous press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower last year, in the wake of the Charlottesville rally and the death of a counterprotester. “You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides.”
Soifer said the JDCA believes that Charlottesville was a crucible moment for Trump and the country, from which many American Jews could never forgive the president for his conduct. But what effect might it have if the candidate who challenges Trump next is Jewish, representing pluralism in the flesh, inviting a direct and open debate over antisemitism in America at a time of historic political rancor?
“Obviously, we don’t know who’s going to run yet, but there’s a reasonable chance that there’s going to be more than one African-American, more than one woman, more than one racial minority,” said Mark S. Mellman, one of the nation’s leading pollsters and CEO of the Mellman Group. “It’s going to be a big field, and that means that you’re going to have a diverse field even by the standards of the Democratic Party.
“How the candidate handles it will depend on how he approaches his own Jewishness, to a certain extent, and we don’t really know what that looks like for several of these individuals,” Mellman added. “You can imagine the same sort of thing is going to happen from Trump this time as in 2016, but the truth is you’re going to have that no matter who the nominee is. The form it’s going to come in and how audible the dog whistle will be obviously remains to be seen.”
Despite Israel’s embrace of the Trump administration, with its policies on Jerusalem, Iran and the UN sympathetic to Israeli causes, American Jews have remained largely Democratic. Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly and predictably for Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, in 2016, and 28 of the 30 Jewish members of Congress belong to the Democratic Party.
Soifer believes American Jews will remain loyal to the party, given Trump’s hostility to values long held sacred within the community, and would not be surprised if, as a result, the party produces a Jewish nominee.
“I think it’s still very early – there are lots of names out there,” Soifer said. “But it would be great to have Jewish candidates. I would like to think today that the fact that candidates are Jewish is less important than if they represent Jewish values – a woman’s right to choose, support for Israel, gun control. That’s what is really important.”
“But it’s really about being able to defeat Donald Trump,” Soifer added.